Case Study | Closing the Gap: United Way Connects the Dots for Rural COVID-19 Response

publication date: May 10, 2020
author/source: Francesca Dobbyn

I’ve long been proud of the resourcefulness and generosity of our rural communities. Fully autonomous and 100% reliant on donations, the United Way of Bruce Grey (UWBG) assists over 50,000 vulnerable men, women and children through a variety of programs including utility assistance, safe shelter, emergency food supplies, financial advice, and more. In addition to our own programs and services, we support other organizations with specific expertise in poverty-related areas, as well.

The needs of our communities are as wide-ranging and diverse as the people we serve. When families suffer the devastation of a house fire, we are there. When students need backpacks and school supplies for the year ahead, we are there. We turn to our communities—Owen Sound, Walkerton, Tobermory, and all rural points between—and without fail, they activate and unite to combat the problem at hand with their volunteerism and donations.

The Coronavirus pandemic turned all of that on its head. Nearly every charitable organization, whether autonomous or government-funded, has experienced major interruptions in funding and volunteer support—even the ability to operate at all.

Every person in our region has been impacted, if not by the virus itself then by the impacts of self-isolation and physical distancing. We’ve been faced with a new challenge:

How can you help when it’s not a good time to fundraise?

The need is still there; in fact, it is greater than ever, especially here in rural Ontario where services are few, far between, and typically operating at full capacity. Stress and anxiety are rampant as residents shelter in place, concerned not only about the physical health of their family and friends but of their financial, mental, and emotional wellness, as well.

We were challenged to find new ways to help. As the needs of our community continue to evolve and other programs are adapting, the UWBG has discovered innovative methods of closing the gaps. I’d like to share with you just a few examples of what this looks like:

Our local Girl Guides had over 3,000 boxes of their fundraising cookies to sell but struggled to move stock with COVID-19 restrictions in effect. We created a program that enables members of the public to honour a long-term care worker by sponsoring a box of cookies, which we then have delivered in bulk to local long-term care facilities. So far, the community has sponsored close to 700 boxes. Long-term care workers are recognized and our Girl Guides retain that important source of funding.

Our local Habitat for Humanity contacted UWBG in mid-March, just as the effects of the pandemic were beginning to hit home in our region. Their message: “We have four trucks. Tell us how we can help.” We had already been made aware of a need amongst local food banks; they were struggling to find toilet paper to purchase in bulk. Purchasing limits in grocery stores were in effect, and it made no sense to send multiple volunteers on numerous shopping expeditions to meet the need. UWBG was able to connect to a wholesaler through one of our major donors, then arrange for Habitat for Humanity to take on the distribution role.

When their Restore locations had to close and they lost that revenue stream, Habitat asked if UWBG could cover their transportation costs. We were able to apply for grants to do so. Now, those Habitat trucks are also transporting hot meals from our local soup kitchen to local hotels where members of the homeless population are sheltering in place.

UWBG is working with the Ontario Student Nutrition Program, which runs in-school breakfast programs while school is on, to provide food hampers to vulnerable families with children in the community. They approached us to ask if we could be the recipient of the funding and coordinate distribution. We are planning to deliver over 300 hampers to area families. Habitat for Humanity is assisting with transportation here, as well.

When Y Housing is able to place a person in permanent housing, UWBG has funding through the federal Homelessness Prevention Strategy to provide them a bed. Due to the pandemic, we’ve been able to get county-level funding to expand this program and address pandemic-specific situations. However, with thrift stores unable to service the public, residents have found it difficult to outfit a new apartment. Habitat for Humanity is helping us store and coordinate donated goods and assemble “home starter kits” with a bed-in-a-bag, dishware, cooking tools, etc., for delivery to community members. This allows us to avoid depleting the thrift store stock that area residents will rely on once they open again while fulfilling that need for safe, affordable, secure housing that new residents can be proud of (which can help increase the likelihood they’ll be able to stay in that new situation).

Organizations that receive transfer payments from the government may be more restricted in what they can do. But as a United Way, we have been able to step in and make those connections, bridge the gaps, and coordinate the effort.

This gives our donors a deep value-add, as it shows that each of the organizations involved is using available resources to the best of our collective abilities. When they make a donation to the Pandemic Fund, they can be confident that everyone is on the same page and we are working together across both counties. We are doing our very best to reduce any duplication of efforts and get the right resources in the right hands.

Our rural nature necessitates collaboration and creating community. If we each approach the need from “How do we help?” the community as a whole comes out stronger.

Francesca Dobbyn is the Executive Director of United Way Bruce Grey, a critical community resource on a mission to improve lives and build community by engaging individuals and mobilizing collective action.

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